Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Paradox of the Positive Front



Year one of my creative business was all about projecting a successful image. Call it "fake it 'till you make it", call it the Secret principle...the basic idea is the same: having an optimistic perspective while you bridge the gap between where you start and where you want to end up will lead to a positive outcome. Present yourself as successful, the world sees you as successful, treats you as successful...and hopefully one day your own perception follows suit as a new reality unfolds.

Over the past year I have been asked countless times:

- So, how's it going?
- Have you been busy?
- Are you getting lots of foot traffic?
- How are sales?
- Did you get a lot of people buying for the holidays?

Usually these questions have come from well-intentioned, curious people wanting to be supportive. Regardless of how things were actually going, or how I felt on any given day, the answer would always be the same:

- It's been going really well, thank you. (accompanied by a humble smile)

Sometimes this response felt totally accurate, other times it felt like the ultimate false front. But no matter. I would always answer with the same optimistic vibe of success.

I truly believe that projecting a positive image in year one was critical. Because here's the thing: MANY PEOPLE EXPECTED ME TO ANSWER THAT THINGS WERE NOT GOING WELL. Because it's hard as hell to make it as an artist. Especially when you take on a brick-and-mortar location. In a place with practically no foot traffic. And are only open three days a week. And your pieces are expensive and you are based in a community that's perceived as unable to support nice things. People don't expect you to succeed.

I could see it in their faces. People were ready for me to say that things were not going well. That nobody was coming in my doors. That I wasn't selling anything. That I wasn't enjoying success. That I wouldn't make it through the first year. It was almost funny to observe the surprise in their faces. "Oh really? Ummm, that's great!" And then this strange, subtle transformation as their perception of my business shifted from "just another struggling artist" to "wow, she's making it happen. I want to be part of this."

After a solid year of fake-it-'till-you-make-it, here I am. I had a good first year. I had sales. My guest artists had sales. My business has been a success.

I believe that my positive responses had a direct influence on creating all this. If I'd responded that things were slow, that I wasn't sure how I'd cover my expenses, that I felt discouraged and uncertain, that this was a tough occupation and a tough town to be in...people would have perceived me to be a sinking ship. And who wants to support some debbie downer business that is destined to fail?

But here's the thing: fake-it-'till-you-make-it creates an image of success that leads to actual success...but it can also work behind the scenes to cultivate a rotten sense of fraudulence, insecurity, and insatisfaction within the person faking it. At least that's how it's been for me. Not just here with the jewelry/art stuff, back in Mozambique it was the same thing with our consulting work.

There comes a point when you have to stop fronting and get real. Acknowledge your insecurities and weaknesses and frustrations. Voice your doubts. Truly evaluate how things are going, what is working, what isn't. Start being a little more authentic. If not with everyone who asks you how it's going, at least with yourself. The relentless positivity can quickly become denial if you don't let it fade away at some point.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Creative Business: What Makes Me (Un)Happy


Lately I've been feeling very unhappy about being a jeweler and having the gallery. These growing pains are part of the ride, but it's time for a major adjustment when the thing I love becomes the thing I most want to avoid. Because, you know, I already burned out on one career (see: the archives of this blog between 2006 and 2009) and I'd prefer that not happen again.

The things that make me unhappy are pretty easy to identify:

- Allowing my business side to take over at the expense of my artist side. Focusing too much on numbers and sales and foot traffic, and very especially measuring my success by those metrics.

- Acting like a retail jewelry store. This is not what I want to do, but it is the easiest model to follow and the one that people most readily understand. And the desire to have a flourishing business where others understand what I'm doing, support it, approve of it...I won't lie. It's there.

- Making jewelry that I think will sell, not the pieces my gut/soul/whatever leads me to create. Production work is a tempting mistress. Again, it's what others most easily "get". It's safe and expected/accepted. It's the most lucrative strategy, at least in the short term. But it is the wrong path for me, and that I do know in my gut. Focusing on production work (think wearable, fashionable jewelry collections that are made in multiples) is the fast track to my business mind taking over.

- Living too much in the future. Planning excessively. Scheduling every free moment. Maxing out my productivity.

- Creating a public persona where I don't allow myself to be real, vulnerable, messy, or uncertain. Feeling like I always have to front positivity and be "on" in order to be successful. Here I feel free to tell it like it is. On my www.aliamaro.com blog and newsletter and in the gallery, I don't. There is a major filter in place. I recognize the importance of privacy, of keeping some semblance of separation between business and personal life...but it bothers me that I don't feel okay sharing my authentic self in the spaces where I share my work.

- Feeling overly obligated to others. Man this is a big one. I want to share my opportunities with my fellow artists, and I want to contribute to my community...but there needs to be balance so I'm not consumed up in the process.

So there's the unhappy list, in a nutshell. Now for what makes me happy (it's a much less philosophical list):

- Doing the painting exercise I invented where I color mix for 5 minutes, then apply paint to the canvas for 5 minutes, let dry, and repeat. These loose, colorful, free paintings are my favorite thing right now in terms of studio work.

- Taking photos of textures, patterns, and architecture. Taking portraits.

- Creating compositions with objects. Finding edges that match and angles that meet. Finding balance within asymmetry.

- Playing with color. Putting together unexpected palettes. Organize things according to gradients.

- Doing processes that involve the unknown. Like enameling, where you have no idea what the colors will look like before you apply heat. Or using my jeweler's saw to slice into those dried acrylic paint balls I like so much, revealing a hidden interior.

- Rendering (drawing) jewelry. I think I like it because it's so damn hard and the results are so gratifying. Nothing like a challenge.

- Being a stylist: putting together a great outfit, nailing proportion, mixing patterns, accessorizing.

- Creating something for another person that is incredibly meaningful to them.

- Doing nothing. Hanging out with cats. Being in the sun. Dancing.

- Getting away. Traveling. Exploring. Wandering.

I am going to pin this to my studio wall and make it a priority to look at it, reflect on it, allow myself to say YES to things on the happy list and STOP doing the things on the unhappy list without guilt or anxiety or insecurity. I'm not sure what the result will look like, in terms of what I'll create or where it will lead. And that's part of the exercise.  

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: First Year of the Gallery

In front of the Point Richmond gallery on our first year anniversary party. Photo by Steve Holloway.
Mon dieu, 2014 was quite the year. I loved it, am grateful for it, but damn in put me through the ringer. Here are some of the more notable experiences and reflections on my first year having the gallery in Point Richmond:

  • Launching a brick-and-mortar business in an area with no foot traffic is not for the faint of heart. It really builds character to open your doors and then have nobody walk in, sometimes for days. I knew it would be like that, especially in the beginning (Point Richmond has a wee downtown plaza with some commerce, but sustaining a retail space here is hard), and I created my business model to be compatible with zero foot traffic, but still. No matter how many times I reminded myself that I am not a jewelry store, and that my success is not measured by the number of people who come through the door, it was tough to keep a positive perspective. Many a night I would close the gallery and then go cry into Rico's sympathetic ear. I found it disturbingly easy to slip into a "retailer" mentality, focused on being busy, hoping to get slammed with shoppers, feeling pressure to keep longer hours, offer more, do more-more-more. But I am not a traditional retailer, and I don't want to be a traditional retailer. Therefore much of 2014 was about resisting that impulse, and trying to remind myself (and others!) that it is possible to find success through a different model.
  • What is that model? A hybrid of creating custom pieces for clients, selling my own limited-edition jewelry designs in the gallery and online, and selling work from select guest artists in the gallery. About half of my business last year was custom work. The other half was gallery sales, of which one-third was from the guest artists I featured. I find it fascinating to have one full year of numbers to look back on, concrete information that will inform next year's activities.
  • Speaking of numbers, I am excited to report that my predictions for 2014 were majorly on point. No big surprises in expenses, and I exceeded my revenue goal by 15%. So there may not be people streaming in the door, but hey, something went right. ;)
  • Last year brought many intangible successes that don't show up in my numbers. Like Point to Point Richmond, the community event I helped conceptualize and launch over the summer. Together with a crew of fellow artists and small business owners, we encouraged people to rediscover and reinvent Point Richmond one day each month through collaborations, pop-ups, performances, and spontaneous and creative use of our spaces. It was a grand experiment, completely and totally grassroots, that allowed me to connect into a community of peers and meet many new people. Point to Point was not in my business plan, and I never could have imagined dedicating so much energy to community organizing...but I allowed myself to follow my gut, and I can honestly say it was worth it. Not just as a personally fulfilling experience, but as a great way to get people into my space and talk to them about my work (see bullet point #1 about there being no foot traffic..."event-driven" is what we are!).
  • In 2014 I showed work by six guest artists in the gallery, often holding opening receptions on Point to Point days. It was great to be able to show a mix of styles and materials and price points, to showcase local art, and to have my creative friends alongside me in this experience. There were some bumpy times, but I am so proud of the professionalism we all showed, the way we found solutions to whatever wasn't working. In 2015 I look forward to showing more work by guest artists, but with a slightly different format to keep things fresh.
  • I am so grateful for the help and support I've received over the past year. My family, Rico, my assistant Marie, my studio mates, my guest artists, my teachers, my clients, our neighbors, and our friends near and far. It has not been an easy one, but I am aware I'm not in this alone, and that anytime I need to talk or cry or celebrate, I have great company by my side.
  • My favorite comeback of 2014: "What?? You've been here a year? I've never noticed you! You need to advertise more!" "Oh yes, we have been here for a year. We're a hidden gem, just like Point Richmond." Works every time. People like the fact that our neighborhood is undiscovered and under the radar, and I love using that analogy to open their minds about what my business model is all about.
  • Low point of 2014: there was a flea infestation in the gallery. It was horrible and required great discretion and took so much longer to get rid of than I ever though possible. It's all gone now, no more fleas, and I'm at the point where it is really funny to look back on. Hilarious how life throws you a really good curve ball every once in a while, just to make sure you remember you can't control it all.
  • Speaking of, I downsized my planner. After three years using a gigantic paper calendar with scheduling in 30-minute increments, I'm now down to a 5x7 weekly view planner with space to write one or two things per day. This is a good limit for me. Getting through school and the first year of my business, it was super helpful to have tight planning and a to-do list on every page. But now, I can relax a little. I have to relax a little. If I can't write it in the little space allotted for the day, I probably shouldn't take it on...
  • And so goes the first year. There are a lot of takeaways that I didn't list here, but that's okay. This doesn't have to be exhaustive. It's New Year's Eve, and it's time to celebrate. Rico and I are feeling really exhausted and under the weather, and instead of being out at a party we've elected to stay home and chill. My mom said we're getting old. I say we're getting comfortable. There is a fire in the fireplace, cats and blankets on the lap, and White Collar on Netflix. Here's to a quiet end to an unforgettable and intense year.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Royal Finish

One of my major custom projects this year involved making a crown using my client's Nana's clip-on earrings and brooches as the inputs. When I said yes, I wasn't even sure I *could* make a crown, but we figured it out. The end result used Nana's vintage costume jewelry mixed with golden grass shapes (capim dourado from Brazil), labradorite, Swarovski crystals, and hundreds of tiny rivets to attach everything to the brass structure. I am still amazed by what came together.




I've been working on another big project, too: creating the structure and content for my new website over at www.aliamaro.com. It's still a work in progress, but it's close enough to soft launch and share. I know there are several dead end links, and lots of images and captions yet to upload, but after building this site from the ground up over the past 1.5 years, I'm ready for it to be a thing, out there in real life, a tool to be used.

My new site has a blog, which you can access here. I'll be sharing all of my major jewelry stuff there, writing about my experiences as a creative micro entrepreneur, posting inspiration photos, talking about process and techniques. I hope you'll follow me there, and bear with my dust while the site is still in construction.

Also in the works for early 2015: a revamped online shop! Yay!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Video: Interview with Richmond Confidential



This feature on Ali Amaro | Art Jewelry & Objects is part of a series about small businesses in Richmond, California. We had a really fun interview, and I hope you enjoy the result!

Check out the full video and text here: http://richmondconfidential.org/2014/10/13/voice-of-small-business-ali-amaro-art-jewelry-objects/

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Textures and Surfaces of Avignon and Les Baux

Last September I visited southern France for the first time, part of a super family bonding trip with my mom, uncle and aunt. One of my favorite things to photograph is surfaces, in particular those that are worn by the elements and marked by time. I am drawn to walls, windows, doors, pavements, and natural elements like roots and soil. Here are some of the textures that caught my eye in Provence:














Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Craft and Cats and Point to Point

That's what seems to rule my photo stream these days.

Point to Point Richmond is this Saturday and we have two new pop-up guest artists who will be showing their work (Wei Lah Poh and Tony Esola).


We're also preparing a make-your-own prayer flag activity using hand-dyed samples from my textiles classes stitched to sail cloth, ready for embellishment by participants.


Here's my trusty assistant Marie sewing amid a desk full of CLUTTER.


Thankfully that desk situation is a little more under control this week. When my work environment is clear, my mind can be creative with more ease. The challenge is my process, which involves making a mess, creating different compositions, spreading materials around all over the place. Here's a new series of Mozambique Island shipwreck trade bead necklaces I made recently. I'll be debuting them at the Ali Amaro Gallery for Point to Point.


Maybe one of these guys can help me get a handle on the organizing. After all, they're good with laundry and tablecloths!